PhD Oral Exam - Eli Friedland, Political Science
When studying for a doctoral degree (PhD), candidates submit a thesis that provides a critical review of the current state of knowledge of the thesis subject as well as the student’s own contributions to the subject. The distinguishing criterion of doctoral graduate research is a significant and original contribution to knowledge.
Once accepted, the candidate presents the thesis orally. This oral exam is open to the public.
This dissertation argues that Plato makes a crucial and still-pertinent distinction, in the Laws, between genuine responsibility and political responsibility, and that that distinction can only emerge from a close engagement with the characters crafted by him. I propose, and defend in detail, that the character of Megillos, in Plato's Laws, can be seen on close consideration to lean profoundly toward the philosophic life, despite and because of the image of the typical or even particularly obtuse citizen that he deliberately presents himself as. How he comports himself, and why, is an indication in the Laws of genuine responsibility as a way of life that requires neither political recognition nor political reward. That Megillos shares this way of life with the Athenian Stranger – often taken to be the philosophical character in the Laws – is, I show, key to Plato’s teaching on taking responsibility for the laws. Conversely the character of Kleinias – the Cretan statesman in the Laws – reveals a disposition that is far more dependent on such recognition and reward than the character himself realizes, a character whose very belief in his own independent responsibility disguises, to himself, his deep reliance on and affinities with the people he considers his inferiors. I first bring these understandings of the Laws’ characters to an examination of the general conflicts between the demands of necessity as they impose themselves on the Stranger and Megillos, and as they appear to Kleinias in the form of moral and political righteousness. Following this, I closely consider Plato’s teaching on natural and conventional right as it emerges in the controversial discussion of sexuality, and particularly homosexuality, in Book 8 of the Laws. That discussion comes into a profoundly different light when the ramifications of character are brought to bear upon it, than it does when taken as a simple statement of Plato’s “beliefs”. The strange image of animal desire and self-control is presented most forcefully there by the Stranger to Kleinias as a seeming standard of natural right, and seems to present homosexuality (and all extramarital liaisons) as “against nature”. Upon closer consideration, however, that image turns out to be at odds not only with “the nature of beasts” that it presents as its foundation, and not only with the very human psychology to which it seems intended to appeal (through a sense of honor), but also – indeed especially – with the philosophical “Socratic” eros that the Stranger and Megillos (though not Kleinias) agree is the highest human eros, and which is even presented as the most desirable eros politically. The Stranger’s hesitancy or refusal to speak of his image as simply true emerges as a pregnant hesitancy, as a deliberate and successful attempt to speak separately with Megillos about the severe limits of human voluntariness even as he urges Kleinias to celebrate voluntariness as a capacity that only the dishonorable would fail to exercise. In having that conversation, the Stranger and Megillos do responsibility, and responsibly leave intact Kleinias’ (and the city’s) own image of political responsibility as genuine.